The Nutty Professor (1996)

The Nutty Professor. Imagine Entertainment 1996.

Before watching the movie:

There are two reasons I avoided this movie. First, the original probably didn’t need a remake (I thought I reviewed that but I guess it was before I started this blog), and second, I’m concerned by how the Eddie Murphy version of the character is ostracized for being obese, not for being a nerd, which almost certainly means that fat jokes will fuel a lot of the movie. Why wasn’t it enough for the Dr. Jekyll side to be nerdy? 1996 was still a little before geek culture took over the zeitgeist. Was a black nerd drinking a potion to turn suave too close to Steve Urkel/Stefan Urquel, debuting three years earlier on television? Judging from Eddie Murphy’s live action movies since this one, I suspect he just thinks wearing fat suits is funny, and he’s Eddie Murphy so he can make whatever movies he wants.

I am kind of excited to learn that James Coburn is in this somewhere.

After watching the movie:

Prof. Sherman Klump fills his life with ineffective weight loss strategies, but at the university his research might have found a formula that made a guinea pig lose a small percentage of weight. Sherman is enamored with Carly Purdy, the new grad student who is teaching across the hall and has a deep respect for Prof. Klump’s body of work. Sherman invites her on a date to a comedy club, where an insult comedian sees him and picks on him mercilessly. Plagued by nightmares of his weight making him a monster, Sherman uses his formula on himself and loses half his body weight in seconds. Looking and feeling like a completely different person, he introduces himself to Carla as “Buddy Love”. But “Buddy” isn’t just a change in body mass, the high testosterone levels of the formula also increase his self confidence and lower his inhibitions, to the effect that Buddy has a much bolder but more self-centered and meaner personality. The serum is temporary, so Buddy reverts to Sherman periodically without taking more, and for a while Sherman attempts to live a double life as Buddy, telling Carla as Sherman that she should date Buddy. But Buddy’s excesses take a toll, especially with the dean of the college very close to having an excuse to fire Sherman.

One thing I’ll grant on the change from nerd to fat man is that it makes more sense that a scientist would look for a chemical solution to obesity than to charisma. However, the movie wants to both use Sherman’s weight for laughs and at the same time make us have sympathy for the world rejecting Buddy for his size and living in a physical environment that isn’t made for him. The one time I actually laughed at a fat-related joke was when the character entered a sports car as Buddy, transformed into Sherman, and the firefighters remark that it’s the first time they’ve had to use the Jaws of Life without an accident. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what is supposed to be a joke and what is supposed to be “look how the world treats him like a joke, feel bad for him”.

While Jerry Lewis supported the film as an executive producer, he later regretted having messed with the original movie’s legacy. I do think that the themes of this movie might be more clearly delineated, which may or may not be better. You can see pretty quickly that Buddy is a bit of a monster. You can see that Sherman feels like his body makes him a monster. The movie gets to tap into a lot of satire of diet culture and body shaming. I think the main place that this is a bit too simplified is that Carla agrees to go with Sherman on what is explicitly a date before he does anything with the formula, so right at the beginning it’s clear that she has a romantic interest in Sherman, which only Sherman can’t see due to his body image issues even though it’s made entirely explicit by her acceptance of the date.

This movie isn’t as funny as it seems to intend to be, but it does have a light tone and a warm message. I appreciate it more as a successor to the original than I expected, and for better or worse, it’s the Nutty Professor movie to multiple generations now. And that could have happened with a less worthy effort.

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